Built on Facts

[This post is tremendously nerdy Star Wars fan ranting. There is no physics. You have been warned!]

Let me get this straight: I tremendously enjoyed Star Wars: Episodes 1-3. I enjoyed them in all their badly-acted, incoherently characterized, effects-dependent glory. Every single one of them I walked into and out of the theater with a huge grin on my face. Yes, even Episode 1. They weren’t works of art by any stretch, but they had enough of the classic Star Wars magic to turn me back into that wide-eyed little kid watching in wonder as Luke blew up the Death Star.

So ignore all the numerous “obvious” problems with the prequels. Heaven knows there’s no lack of them. The vast majority could have been fixed with a good screenwriter to translate Lucas’ overall ideas onto the screen while scrapping his ludicrous specifics. (Anakin’s motivation for joining the dark side, slaughtering children, and plunging the galaxy into darkness was to maybe vaguely help his not-actually-endangered pregnant wife? You’ve got to be kidding me.) There is, however, one tremendous overall problem that represents the most serious failure of the prequels.

The name of the entire series is Star Wars. Though we focus on the stories of the individual characters and their personal struggles in the context of the Force, the reason for all this trouble in the first place is that there is a war going on. Quick quiz: in the original trilogy, why is the war being fought? Anyone who’s seen 10 minutes of the original films can tell you. There is an Empire, it’s evil, and thus there’s a rebellion trying to overthrow it. We know the Empire is evil because within the first third of the first movie the Empire has blown up a planet, tortured Princess Leia, and incinerated Luke’s aunt and uncle. Why the sides fight is easy. One wants to dominate the galaxy, one wants to stop being dominated.

Quiz number 2: in the prequel trilogy, why is the war being fought? Good luck getting anything but a confused stare out of any casual viewer of the prequels. The movies do an awful job of communicating the single most basic fact of the entire plot – what the heck is going on in this “star war” anyway. I’m not saying there needed to have been an original trilogy style Manichean good vs. evil war. Wars rarely are that simple. But even the most morally gray wars have reasons for being fought that their instigators and combatants could articulate. They may be bad or unjust reasons, but reasons nonetheless. And when you film a war, you have to show those reasons or else you’re going to have a lost audience. And in fact the particular war in the prequel trilogy has no fewer than three motivations, of which George Lucas bothered to clearly show exactly zero on the screen. To figure them out you have to be pretty savvy as to the workings of the Star Wars universe, which is not at all fair to the casual viewer.

Reason 1: Trade disputes. This is the reason the public of the galaxy believes the war is being fought. The movie never bothers to go into the slightest detail about this despite wasting tremendous time on senate scenes that advance the plot precisely none. Apparently the “Trade Federation”, the “Commerce Guild”, and the “Banking Clan” are… I dunno, trying to secede? It’s not explained, and could not possibly make sense if it were. Generally it sounds like the kind of thing you hear explained to you in real life by bug-eyed lunatics ranting about the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group. It’s just not plausible. But it could have easily been made plausible. Steal the plot of the American Revolution and throw in the Trade Federation as an anachronistic British East India Company defecting to the side of the Americans for their own financial advantage. You could easily erase any Manichean character to the struggle if you wanted, and it would make a lot more sense than what in the actual films sounds more like Goldman Sachs suddenly unleashing a robot army on the world.

Reason 2: To provide an excuse for Chancellor Palpatine to seize power. This is what the movie seems to be trying to say the “real” reason for the war is, but it also makes very little sense in context. Palpatine is the highest ranking politician in the Republic, simultaneously and secretly the leader of the separatists fighting the Republic, and oh by the way he’s a Sith Lord with mind control powers and lightning shooting out of his fingers. He clearly has very little problem gaining power with or without a war. Now of course this is a real reason for the war, but so far as the Emperor is concerned it’s a secondary benefit of his starting a war by being the leader of both sides. The real real reason for the war is this:

Reason 3: To spread the Jedi throughout the galaxy as lone individuals surrounded by thousands of clone soldiers completely loyal to Palpatine. Once this was done, they could be easily wiped out and the only real threat to Palpatine’s consolidation of power – the other group of mind-controlling wizards – could be eliminated. This wheels-within-wheels scheme is fundamentally the reason the war was instigated. And darned if the movie doesn’t completely fail to make this clear to the audience.

So if I were able to do some rewrite work on the prequel trilogy (other than fixing the obvious crap that I alluded to earlier), that’s what I’d do. Clearly show why the war was being fought, both the public reasons and the hidden reasons.

And make Anakin less of a petulant baby. And make Jar-Jar a three-dimensional character. And get someone with talent to completely rewrite the cringe-inducing love scenes. And…

Well, you get the picture.

Comments

  1. #1 Lab Rat
    April 25, 2009

    Yay! Totally agree. My main problem with the new trilogy was that it was so difficult to work out what was going on. Especially episode I – what with elected princesses, trade federations, the entire american government system (which i’m shaky on anyway) and then the indroduction of seperatists, guilds, chancellors and goodness knows what else made it so hard to grasp what everyone was doing and why. Or what they should have been doing, or what their own sneaky agenda’s were.

    Although I think my main problem with the new Star Wars trilogies was that I couldn’t make my self really care about any of the characters. Apart from Qui-Gon, but he went and died in the first film. And I did start rooting for christopher lee at one point, but only because I was bored and knew he’d probably end up dead anyway :)

  2. #2 G. Williams
    April 25, 2009

    I saw Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” show last night, which includes a segment about Star Wars. Some of the stuff she talked about, I knew already (such as having to strap her breasts down with gaffer tape–ouch) but the bit about how practicing tongue-twisters at drama school prepared her for George Lucas’s dialogue was hysterical.

    I had a hard time enjoying the prequels at all because, pretty as they are, they don’t make any sense. If I want things to not make sense I can just look at real life.

  3. #3 Max Fagin
    April 25, 2009

    “And make Jar-Jar a three-dimensional character.”

    I personally would have had Jar-Jar crushed by the federation transport in his very first scene, but thats just me.

  4. #4 Carl Brannen
    April 26, 2009

    Matt, I’ve never owned a TV because I’d waste too much time sitting in front of it, but despite this, I managed to get addicted to the Battlestar Galactica series. Eventually I had to rent DVDs and play them on my laptop.

    I’ve wondered about why I liked the series so much and concluded it was the writing. They didn’t put a lot of money into sets, but since I’m usually a reader, this never bothered me.

    Anyway, I can only suggest that grad students in physics get rid of their TVs. Movies are okay, they can’t waste your time day after day.

  5. #5 Roadtripper
    April 26, 2009

    Erm…I dunno. Figuring out what was going on in the prequels didn’t seem that difficult to me. In fact, having the whole plot spoon-fed to me would make the movies that much less interesting.

    Otherwise, I agree with you 100%. Those movies had problems, but on some level they were still fun.

    Rt

  6. #6 Matthias
    April 26, 2009

    The prequels are jsut that — prequels. They were made when the “original” Star Wars trilogy was already common knowledge, and therefore can and do suppose previous knowledge of it.

    The point of the “new” trilogy is not to explain it’s own “Star War”, but that of the later-playing earlier-made trilogy. And that they do sufficiently well.

    To me the reason of the “trade” war is pretty clear: It is not Palpatine who is waging it, it is the Sith Lord Darth Sidious. He has a patient, but straightforward plan to seize power over the galaxy: gain political power (for which Palpatine is his figure, in the crumpled heart he is Darth Sidious), and when he is in the position, wage a war to justify throwing over the Republic in favor of an Empire, with himself on top.

    The specific details of the trade disputes are not given, because they are not important. Sidious just takes whatever reason for dispute he can get and, through open and covert channels, exaggerates it into a war. People fight over nothing when pushed to do so.

    Getting rid of the Jedi may just be getting rid of a stumblestone on his way to power, or he may set out to become ruler of the galaxy just to show them who’s daddy; it doesn’t make much of a difference.

  7. #7 Alan D. McIntire
    April 27, 2009

    Another problem: The improved special effects of the prequel gave the impression that technology had somehow deteriorated between the periods of 1-3 and 4-6.

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  9. #9 Fred
    April 27, 2009

    The first three were stories. The second three sermons. Nice rant. Makes me feel better that I still think in terms of the ‘real’ Star Wars.

  10. #10 rob
    April 28, 2009

    i went to the original Star Wars (episode 4) on opening night. it was one of the best movie experiences i ever had. unfortunately, episodes 1-3 were lackluster or on the bottom of my list of bad movie experiences.

    i think part of the problem, starting with Jedi, is that George and the studios started seeing $$$$. hence the cutesy happy meal ewoks, jar-jar etc. at that point is was like they were trying to extract the most $$$$ out of the crowds at the expense of the story.

  11. #11 Eric Lund
    April 28, 2009

    Another problem: The improved special effects of the prequel gave the impression that technology had somehow deteriorated between the periods of 1-3 and 4-6.

    Not necessarily a problem. There are historical precedents for societies losing technologies without necessarily replacing them with anything better. The reasons usually include either resource depletion (the Greenland Norse lost the ability to make iron tools once they cut down the accessible forests) or losing a war (most famously the Roman Empire), but sometimes just for the heck of it: in the early 15th century China had ocean-going ships far larger than anything Europeans would deploy even into the 19th century, but in the 1420s inward-looking courtiers convinced the new Emperor to burn the fleet.

    See also Asimov’s Foundation stories. The point of the Foundation was to try to preserve technology that the rest of the Galactic Empire was losing, so that at the end of the Dark Ages the new Empire could use it. And remember that the conception of Coruscant as a planet-wide city was copied from Asimov’s Trantor.

  12. #12 dd64954
    February 5, 2010

    For me… as a fan of the OT as a very young boy… I definitely also had some problems with the PT. And these problems can be summed up into three categories (that were all MOST apparent in Ep. 2):

    - cringe-worthy dialogue (crappy love story… dear God, why!?)
    - TOO much CGI; it made it look artificial and not so believable as in the OT (with the introduction of the clone troopers: I thought they were called Storm Troopers, and they were actual people? Maybe the Storm Troopers were hired later on?!)
    - Lucas trying to make it seem like “real life” – Senate discussions, “Death Sticks” and “robot american football” (What the hell?!), etc

    But really – I highly enjoyed TPM and ROTS!

    TPM was a great movie, good story and likeable characters… and had a good mix of CGI and puppets, etc. Too me it was just good fun: Had an awesome villain, Liam Neeson, cool pod-race, nice battle at the end, etc.

    Kids, especially, really loved it! Much like I loved Ep. 6 (b/c of the Ewoks).

    ROTS was fucking AWESOME! I was like a kid again watching that movie! It had everything! Anakin’s descent to evil(!!!), killer duel at the end, Ewan McGregor and Ian McDiarmid(!!!!), awesome space battle, rise of Vader, sad storyline, etc, etc.!

    Here’s a testament to how good it was: my girlfriend at the time – who had never really been a fan – grapped my arm a few times in suspense, because she got well into it and was sucked in by the story! That was awesome that we shared that…

    However, as is apparent, I really cannot watch AOTC – it’s just crappy and boring. Too much CGI, bad story (horrible love story, too sappy!!!), silly premise and poor acting. I almost fell asleep while watching it, I remember!!! This movie, for me, was the only thing wrong with the PT.

    Otherwise, I actually think that everything was tied up nicely. I do not really care about the details that much – I’m a fan, but I do have other things to tend to in my life, hehe!

    And finally, I sincerely hope that Lucas (before he gets too old) decides to produce the final three episodes and let some young star wars fans direct Ep. 7-9! And lets tie this story up – an epic for ages!

    Just my two cents…

    /cheers from Denmark

  13. #13 Michael
    October 12, 2010

    My dear friend, you seem to hit the nail right on the head. The three prequels were good movies, great movies in fact. However some of the plot motivation needed to be expained better. Maybe have a more plausable reason. Yes ep. I,II,III are good movies. But yes there were problems, easy problems to fix. THey should have consintrated on every detail to improve the overall plot of the films.

  14. #14 Emorer Palpitation
    December 16, 2010

    You hit on a few things to change.

    What is odd about the new trilogy is that it…almost works. The core of a very good story lies in there, and minimal changes could bring it out. Currently the whole thing sounds like a rough draft….reportedly Lucas finished the script just days before shooting and it sound like it.

    I’ve always thought there should have been a pseudo love triangle between Obi Wan, Anikan, and Padme, with Anikin jealous of Obi Wan. Also a fame issue – Anikin is being told he is the Jedi “messiah”, has immense power, and is the hero of Naboo. Perhaps Padme’s initial interaction in the second movie with Anikin could be because he is “famous” – it helps her politically to be seen with him. This would make Anikin’s drift toward the darkside far more understandable with many drivers and causes. Throw in the active efforts of Palpatine to corrupt him, or place him in circumstances that are corrupting…his mother getting killed…

    The politics could have been simplified. Forget the trade federation – there are those that wish to separate from the Republic. Initially this is fine, but the Separatists need to have certain worlds join them because of trade routes, or food, or whatever in order to be viable. First they try coercion, then outright war. Palpatine takes advantage of this to gain power.

    Darth Maul should have carried through the trilogy, or at least until the second movie. I’ve never understood the purpose of Count Dooku – he seems to be a place holder.

    Anikin should have been older from the start – make him 15 and Padme 18 or 19. Worlds apart at that age, but a couple of years later….

  15. #15 Jaster Mereel
    June 24, 2011

    Episode I – anakin should have been older (like Luke’s age). dont need him to be some kid that accidentally blows up a battle station. he should be in the army and an up and coming pilot, whatever his backstory is. just end with an epic (not cartoon) battle. clones should be introduced HERE because there is no point of the large gap between TPM and AOTC.

    Episode II – should be DURING the CLONE WARS, like the title suggests. lets see some internal conflict here. anakin needs to do what he is told but also what he thinks is right. you start to see that right and wrong are relative, and you see his relationship and influence by Padme, OWK, and Palpatine. He kills the sand people, gets jealous of OWK and Padme (even though there is nothing going on between them), gets bullied/beat up somehow, yet still grows cocky and confident, loses trust (these characteristics MUST be present in TPM). show off some more of those pilot skills. the CLONE WARS would be great to set this up because he could just be going on different missions throughout. he is very conflicted by the end and you really see his humanity. think of it like Magneto’s character where, maybe he wants the same goal, but is slowly toward a more radical approach.

    it would end on an ‘optimistic’ note with the clones securing many areas, but the viewer knows this is an ominous sign as we are revealed the true identity of Palpatine (even though we know, the trilogy should stand alone) similar to the identity of DARTH VADER in tESB. so the republic is happy that things are going well, but we know that they are being duped because the clones will turn against them. end on a darker note like tESB.

    EPISODE III –

    no yoda with lightsaber. no yoda period. talk about him but don’t show him until tESB.

    no sidious with lightsaber. he’s too good for that.

    tone down the CGI. a lot. remember how they went to siberia and tunisia for the OT? thats called filmaking.

    make characters that I CARE ABOUT. keep maul and qui gon around. or get rid of qui gon and make obi wan a deeper character. dooku was pointless. should have kept maul.

    overall less characters, but more i care about.

    stop making so many obvious connections, like boba/jango, chewbacca, jabba, lil greedo. make a few NEW ones. if you wanted to connect the trilogies, connect them in story structure and parallelism.

    no midichlorians. no virgin birth.

    how are you gonna ‘hide’ Luke on Vader’s home planet? with his family?

    lost the will to live? cmon.

  16. #16 Anonymous
    June 24, 2011

    also, anakin shouldnt have killed kids. he should have ASSASSINATED qui gon, mace, etc. the best of the best…

  17. #17 joemcgamington
    December 18, 2011

    Episode I – Agree with the above. Anakin should have been an OLDER character in TPM, and the title shouldn’t have been TPM at all. Qui-gon and Maul shouldn’t have died, or at least give Obi-Wan more to do, and have more to do with finding Anakin. The whole Naboo plot was kind of boring and pointless. Trade Federation? Queen? Gungans? Since all these concepts fizzled into the background of the other two prequels, why were they such strong players in TPM? It feels like a very random film currently, and though I admire some of the sets/model work and less overall CGI, it still felt shallow and often pointless. Kid actor just didn’t cut it, and him accidentaly blowing up the ship at the end took the cake for me…

    Episode II – You can pretty much skip this entire movie and not miss a thing. Where do I begin? The whole assassination plot was dumb and pointless. Love scenes were terrible, so bad you couldn’t even enjoy them in a “oh man this sucks” kind of Mystery Science Theater way. Jango Fett was a marketing gimmick just to put the Boba Fett armor in the film. Making the clone suits look like Boba Fett armor was kind of stupid. An army of clones that has been in production for 10 years gets voted for in the senate, and attacks the arena on geonosis, what…immediately? Nobody questioned where this huge free army of clones came from? Ridiculous seeing all the Jedi together. Yoda should never use a lightsaber.

    Episode III – Even though it’s the best prequel movie, it doesn’t get a pass…it’s still bad. Incoherent plot, really dumb main characters, still no point to Dooku, Grevious is just silly and a big distraction, Anakin’s turn to the dark side was like flipping a switch, then BAM he’s in the suit. Yoda and Emperor fight was unbelievably silly. Padme dying made no sense. They wipe the droids memories despite them being involved in every major event of the clone wars/trilogy.

    And really tying in with that last part: R2 and 3PO should have just never been in there. Totally edit them out and color R2 something else, so that….they just aren’t there. Anakin didn’t need to build him…or even build a pod racer (at 8 years old). He didn’t need to be space jesus. Just…a young kid who gets caught up in a huge war regarding clones. Ugh, I could go on and on. If they ever do make more movies, I hope Lucas hands the reigns over to someone younger and brighter than he is.